On a recent Sunday, I went to three church services and a synagogue – all in one morning.
Well, to be honest, I went to little bits of three church services. I was doing a recce for an architectural tour of churches I’m leading – and only stayed for 15 minutes or so in each one.
The City of London is deserted at weekends – but the churches were packed. My first stop was St Botolph without Aldgate, a 1744 Palladian church. The service was just about to begin but, still, a kind, planet-brained church warden pointed out the elegant plasterwork by JF Bentley, architect of Westminster Cathedral.
Then I went on, through the wet, empty streets of the City, to Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain. At first glimpse, the Sephardic synagogue, built in 1701, looks like a Wren church, with its excellent William and Mary brickwork and fine woodwork. Look closer and you see that the reredos is the Ark, alongside 12 pillars representing the 12 Tribes of Israel.
It being a Sunday, there was no service on – but a tour group was being led round the synagogue.
My next stop, St Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate, was crammed. The medieval church survived the Great Fire of London, only to be smashed to pieces by the IRA in 1993. Now a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, it still, thank God, has church services.
When I dropped in, there was a Russian Orthodox service on – packed with young Russians and their toddlers, serenaded by a choir singing a melancholy lament.
I finished at St Nicholas Cole Abbey – one of Christopher Wren’s City churches; a charming, plain, classical box.
St Nick’s, as it’s nicknamed, had an evangelical feel to it. The young man giving the sermon was presumably a vicar but it was hard to tell; he was in an open-neck shirt and fleece, riffing about the Bible. As I briskly left the church at the end of the service before a communal lunch, an attractive young woman came up to me and asked, very politely, whether I’d be returning next week.
That sort of hard sell normally irritates me immensely. But not this time. My ecumenical stroll had left me feeling strangely serene.
I’m not recommending a pick’n’mix approach to religion. All religions are attractive through their certainties and their differences. Mulch them all together and you’re left with something that will please no one and satisfy nobody’s spiritual needs.
But, still, I was left uplifted that so many people – and many more young than old that morning – were choosing to devote their Sunday mornings to religion, rather than to their hangovers or a bottomless brunch.
In Church Going, Larkin wrote tellingly about the innate desire for religion: that “someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious”.
My morning church walk reminded me more of another great Larkin poem, The Whitsun Weddings. On a train journey to London one Whitsun weekend, Larkin encountered a dozen wedding parties at the various stations he stopped at.
Despite the variety of the wedding groups, Larkin spotted a regular pattern of behaviour: “Children frowned at something dull; fathers had never known success so huge and wholly farcical; the women shared the secret like a happy funeral.”
Within all those churches – and the synagogue – I spotted a Larkinesque pattern, too. All the worshippers I saw – and the tour group in the synagogue – shared a seriousness, a curiosity and a knowledge of the past.
My marathon church tour also reminded me of The Great Sermon Handicap, the sublime 1922 story by PG Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster is invited to spend the weekend at Twing Hall, Gloucestershire, by his cousin, Eustace Wooster.
Eustace has come up with a brilliant betting wheeze: he’s opened a book on which vicar will give the longest sermon in the surrounding parishes. And he’s got some great inside knowledge – the Reverend Francis Heppenstall at Twing is fond of talking for 50 minutes on his pet subject of Brotherly Love.
The Great Sermon Handicap depends, as Eustace says, on ensuring that “Each parson is to be clocked by a reliable steward of the course”.
Well, as a temporary steward of the City of London for a few hours, I can say I had a lovely journey clocking several thousand years of Judaeo-Christian history, architecture and religion.
It was a tremendous way to spend a morning. I’m not suggesting anyone should go to three services this Christmas Day, but even one is good for the spirits.
Harry Mount is author of A Lust for Window Sills – A Guide to British Buildings (Little, Brown)
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